Friday, December 31, 2010

Prelude to a Japanese New Year's - A year in Fukushima #4

With only a very limited time to write this post I found it decidedly fortuitous that there were no decent CDs in my wife’s car. Thus the drive from the Internet-less peach farm to a screaming child-less apartment would be a quiet one, as there is a law in the universe that makes it impossible for anything good to be on Japanese radio, and I would have the opportunity to think of an intelligent and snarky opening for today’s blither. But just to make sure the universe was behaving I flipped on the stereo and pushed a couple of preset buttons.
Depending on your opinion of jazz, universal law may indeed be holding constant. But I ended up in mental la-la land for most of the drive listening to a drawn-out jam session called, for no reason I could discern, Autumn Leaves. Another universal law seems to be that jazz titles shouldn’t bear any comprehensible connection to the music.
I came to Japan in September of 2001. This is the first New Year’s Eve I will be spending in Fukushima, where I have officially been living for all but two of the past nine New Year’s Eves. I drove up to the peach farm with the wife and kids two days ago, and while on the surface things appear as they always have (see this previous post), this time around the air in Arai feels different somehow.
‘How long are you staying?’ my mother-in-law asked as I dumped more bags of crap onto the front hallway floor. Yamato pushed his box of new train tracks into the living room while my wife immediately began worrying about whether Seiji needed more milk or a clean diaper or some time with his new walker-wagon as he is now spending a lot of time on his feet and my wife doesn’t want him to lose his developmental momentum. I just mumbled my Japanese greetings and lugged everything into the refrigerator tatami room where we would be sleeping for the next six nights.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Interview with Christopher Carr Of The Inductive - Part V

Fifth and Final Installment. It has been a fantastic pleasure working with Christopher Carr on this, and I look forward to 2011 when I will begin contributing regularly to The Inductive. Thanks for stopping by, and best of luck in all your endeavors in the coming year.

Christopher Carr: As for connecting with a local person, I recommend couch surfing. Other than that, I've heard Akita is a special place. It's the only area of Tohoku I've never been, and I'm planning a big trip up there next summer, so we'll see how that goes. Here is my final question for you: what do you think lies in the future for Japan and your own relationship to it?


Kevin Kato: Couch surfing, of course! How could I forget that one? I’ve actually surfed all over the place, and I’ve hosted some great people here which has actually helped deepen my own appreciation for Japan and Fukushima. Yes, definitely glad you brought that up. I must be getting tired.

Now, you want my take on the future of Japan? I’ll be honest, for as long as I’ve been here I know precious little of the machinations behind this country’s political and economic behavior, I’ll leave that to the pundits and bloggers who know what they are talking about. As far as my place in Japan, I really do feel at home here, bewildering though it can still be at times. On a personal level I’ve met and been befriended by countless wonderful people who would give me the shirt off their back if I needed it. I’ve eaten dinner with many a welcoming family and slept in their homes. I’ve been invited to partake in festivals and weddings. I’ve been forgiven by policemen and treated like royalty by strangers on the street. I wandered into the restricted area at the Hakodate fish market and found myself being given a guest pass and a complimentary sashimi breakfast. And none of it took more than a smile or a friendly word. To anyone who says Japanese people aren’t friendly, I say you aren’t doing your part.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Interview with Christopher Carr of The Inductive - Part IV

For previous installments of this interview go to The Inductive or simply keep scrolling down.

Christopher Carr: In terms of traveling Japan, I imagine going by bike is one of the best possible ways. I've always preferred using the cheapest public transportation imaginable mixed with a small amount of hitchhiking. Getting back to your point about avoiding the touristy areas, which specifically would you avoid, and which do you think are must-see? Also, could you paint in broad strokes, how someone with no experiential knowledge of Japan might go about acquiring that knowledge as efficiently (yet enjoyably) as possible.


Kevin Kato: Which touristy areas to avoid? That’s actually a tough one to answer. I mean, by and large I’ve enjoyed what these heavily-touristed places have to offer, it’s just that conundrum of a place losing its aura because of all the people who wish to go see it. It’s just the nature of the beast. If you were out in the backwoods of Oita or Aomori and you stumbled on a Kiyomizudera that no one but the locals knew about…well, I’d certainly consider that an immensely more magical experience than visiting the ‘real’ Kiyomizudera in Kyoto. But Japan doesn’t tend to hide her treasures – I mean the ones that fit into the mainstream tourist’s interests. Okay, so what to avoid? One place that comes to mind is a theme park in Nikko called Edo-mura, which you can imagine is a recreation of an Edo-period village. Well, a very poorly-presented recreation. Really, it was terrible. Not the replicated village so much as the troupes of pseudo-bandoliers parading around like they were in some samurai movie set and hadn’t read the script. But Nikko itself was fantastic, from Toshogu Shrine to Lake Chuzenji to the gorge downriver from Kegon Falls, I can’t remember the name actually. But let’s see, a place to avoid… Maybe not so much to avoid but a place that in my opinion did not live up to my expectations was Amanohashidate. It was nice, but one of the three most beautiful sights in Japan? Great place, no debate; maybe what got to me, and if you’ve been there then maybe you can relate, was everyone up on that lookout spot standing up on that rock bent over and looking between their legs, which is supposed to make that strip of land look like it is rising up into heaven. For the few minutes I was up there waiting my turn, no one seemed to see anything more than I did, which was an upside down strip of land. But then afterward I went down and took a stroll across that strip of pine-covered sand and thought it was remarkable. Sat on the beach, went for a swim, it was great. So again, it was the human-added factor that put a check in the con column for me.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Now I Know Why My Son Calls Me Krampus

This past week I was once again rattling my ping-pong ball brain around in my skull, trying to knock loose from my miserly sub-conscience another of his multitude of ultra-creative, neuron-growth-stimulating ideas for my Tuesday evening English class. Last month I decided to broaden my students’ vocabulary as well as their intercultural awareness by showing them photos of my recent trip to California. This worked well for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that it gave my students a way to feel they were fully participating in class without having to say anything more than ooh and ahh.


With the Christmas season upon us, and with Japanese society in general not having the slightest clue how to properly celebrate, I wanted to incorporate a Christmas theme into our ninety-minute lesson that usually ends up lasting no more than an hour because someone, like the teacher, is always late. Singing Christmas songs seems an obvious option, but after teaching that Beatles class earlier in the year I knew no one would be able to hang with a tempo any quicker than ‘Silver Bells’ and personally I know my sanity wouldn’t survive the class because they don’t allow spiked eggnog in the building. Last year I asked them to translate a children’s Christmas book; my preparation for this consisted entirely of plowing through all the Santa and Snowman and cartoon ‘Zheesusu’ stories my wife had borrowed from the library and picking out the shortest one. Two hours later my students were bleeding through their foreheads trying to translate the sounds Maisy the mouse, Tallulah the chicken-like thing, Charley the alligator and Eddie the elephant made as they walked through the snow. No disrespect to Lucy Cousins but I will not be trying that again.

This year I am arguably older and wiser, and I thought it would be interesting for my students and quite easy on my ping-pong ball if I put together a list of little-known facts related to Christmas. But when I sat down to a piece of white paper, pen in hand (my printer is broken, has been for two years and isn’t getting better), it occurred to me I know pretty much jack about Christmas beyond church and Charlie Brown (not to downplay the significance of either of these). So I turned on the laptop, made a cup of hot chocolate and folded an entire load of laundry waiting for it (the laptop) to warm up, then googled and scribbled down the most easily-explainable bits of Christmas history and trivia I could find before my son came in to demand I let him use the pc to watch Barney, one of the dozens of DVDs we have from the US that won’t play on our Japanese DVD player.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Interview with Christopher Carr of The Inductive - Part III

This is Part III of a five-part interview. For Part I as posted on The Inductive, click here. For Part II, click here. Or scroll down, or click the link on the right.


Christopher Carr: Tell me about your travels since you came here. Japan is not all that popular with tourists these days, although it's leading the world in English teachers who come and live here I think. Most of my friends, if they make it to Asia at all, skip the neon of Tokyo and the temples of Kyoto for more adventurous tours in Laos or Thailand. Can Japan compete? I've heard a lot of seasoned travelers say that touring Japan for the most part is an academic experience, and you'll get much more out of if you speak Japanese and really do your homework before going somewhere, or else you'll have just no idea what it is you're seeing. Would you agree with this assessment? And how would you characterize your travels around the archipelago?

Kevin Kato: It’s funny, when I first got to Japan I was on the street in Tokyo, maybe Shibuya, and my overriding impression was that it looked a lot like certain parts of Manhattan; big buildings, lots of traffic and people and, what was by far the most astonishing thing, if that isn’t too strong a word, was that almost everything was in English. Store signs, restaurant menus, everything on everyone’s t-shirts, it was all in English. Not always correct English, but English. It was disappointing, really. I was expecting to walk into a world that didn’t make any sense to me. That’s how I wanted it to be. Probably the most exotic experience I’ve had here is using the toilet in someone’s old farmhouse – where they still lived – and finding a floor made of loose boards sitting above a big hole in the ground. In Laos or Cambodia or Malaysia or Peru, outside of the major cities and tourist areas this is almost what you can expect. Japan is extremely developed, so I think you’d be hard-pressed to find that permeating primitive, exotic experience though I’ve never been to the Okinawa island chain.

I tell people my first “real” experience as a traveler came after I’d been in Japan a year and a half already and went to Cambodia. My first day there I found myself in the middle of Phnom Penh with no money, not a word of the language in my head, no idea where to go and no sign of anyone who could help me even if they wanted to – which, to be totally honest, they didn’t. I never felt so utterly lost and hopeless in my life – yet I have to say I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I’ve never felt even remotely lost like that in Japan.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Interview with Christopher Carr of The Inductive - Part II

This is Part II of a five-part interview. For Part I, click here.

Christopher Carr: My experience coming here was kind of the same. I actually never really chose to come to Japan, so that's always a tough question for me to answer when the students ask. From the time I graduated college to the time I had kids I just kind of floated through life. Would you say you had a similar experience? If so, do you believe that there was a kind of force of Fate or Destiny guiding you to Fukushima, or was saying "sure" a conscious decision?

Kevin Kato: Well, I certainly made the decision on my own to come here to Japan. Coming to Fukushima was part of the job offer, something I just accepted without much consideration. “Fukushima, Shimafuka, whatever, I’m going to go live in Japan!” was pretty much my take on the whole deal. Even if I knew I could have requested another location – which I could have – I don’t think I would have because I hadn’t done a whole lot of homework on Fukushima or anywhere else. So at the moment one place would have sounded just as good as the next – as long as it wasn’t Tokyo. ‘Fukushima? Never heard of it, sign me up.’ So in a sense, yeah, I can be a bit of a floater, taking the road that happens to roll out in front of me.

But really, in my years after getting my grad degree – in forensic science...you know, CSI Miami type stuff – I wasn’t floating; I was naively determined to wait until I got exactly the job offer I wanted, which from the outside can seem the same thing. I knew I wanted to work for the FBI as a profiler, and I was ready to accept nothing but the shortest route to that end. Fresh out of grad school I was rejected by the Bureau, so I said okay, I’ll work on the state level for a while first, or I’d go local but only in a place I thought would be cool. I applied for jobs in San Fran, Tampa Bay and Portland, Oregon, passing on jobs in Tulsa and Detroit and such. And I think I pretty much shot myself in the foot being so choosy – I ended up working further and further outside my degree until I found myself an operations manager at a storage and moving company in Colorado. ‘And you have a Master’s in forensics?’ No one could quite get their head around that one, and so a lot of people probably nailed me as a floater, even if that wasn’t the term they had in their head, you know?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Interview with Christopher Carr of The Inductive - Part I

Christopher Carr writes on a broad range of subjects on The Inductive and has guest posted on several other blogs, including here (see 'On Teaching a Foreign Language'). Recently he gave me the opportunity to share my thoughts and views as an expat in Japan, something I normally reserve for long bicycle rides when there is no one else listening. Below is the first of five installments, necessary due to my long-winded answers Christopher has promised not to edit too heavily.

It has been a great pleasure working with Kevin Kato for the past several months. Kevin and I have worked together at the same English school in Japan, and we have both done various work for NOK, Fujitsu, and the Japanese government. Kevin has written a guest post for The Inductive comparing and contrasting his trips to Angkor Wat and Yosemite National Park; and he has been kind enough to allow me to post on his blog: Travel. Write. Drink Plenty of Fluids. Kevin is the author of one book, The Tunge Pit, a collection of interconnected short stories which I described before in this blog as a pungent mixture of the American Gothic, ensemble tale, horror nouveau, and pulp suspense genres.
In addition to publishing the Tunge Pit last year, Kevin has recently translated from the Slovenian Damjan Koncnik's Greenland - The End of the World, an account of an adventure to that massive island in the far north.

I was originally planning on reviewing either or both books for this site; but now I believe such reviews might be a superfluous conflict of interest, since Kevin has agreed to write for the Inductive on a regular basis from 2011. Without further ado, I present part I of an interview conducted via email with Kevin Kato over the last month or so, with parts II through V to follow later this week:

Christopher Carr: Please tell me about the changes in your life, outlook, view of Japan, and view of the U.S. since coming here.

Kevin Kato: Wow, you’re going to hit me with all that right off the bat? Can’t we start with something simple like, “Hey are you on Facebook?” Well, for starters, as far as the obvious goes, I came here with three bags of clothes, a bicycle and a camera that used film; now I’ve got a digital camera, two bicycles and three other people in my home – this being my wife and two little boys. I still have three bags of clothes, but now they’re mostly buried under toy trains and picture books.

But regarding my outlook on things, I’d say straight off that I’ve gone from one who lives for today to one who works for tomorrow. This I blame completely on the family I’ve acquired. For the first half of my life here in Japan I put in my classroom time and that was it; everything else was socializing, cycling and sumo on television. Now as a freelance teacher, writer, publisher, husband and father the concept of free time does not exist, unless you count sleeping. When I am not on the floor playing with cars or clay, or at the park with the kids, I am at my computer hoping I turn out to be the one monkey out of the infinite number of monkeys typing away on an infinite number of computers who happens to bang out Shakespeare. I don’t even know when the next sumo tournament is until I happen to catch a glimpse of the broadcast before my boy switches to some show with a dancing chair or a magic peach-headed thing.

Regarding my view on Japan, I think whenever we travel we tend to have this romanticized view of our destination – if we are not scared shitless of course. Our imagination makes either fantasy or nightmare of the horizon, and it rarely turns out to be either of these. Coming to Japan I was on the fantasy side of the coin – I soaked up everything I could about this totally alien environment and – I think at least to a certain degree – I spun it in my mind into the best possible perception. Of course my opinion on some things has not changed since those first days and weeks: I love the atmosphere imbued in traditional Japanese architecture, and sushi and beer is still tough to beat on a summer evening. But other things have lost their magic. I can say with fair authority that not every schoolboy and schoolgirl here is an intellectual prodigy, as seemed to be the ongoing, permeating perception growing up back home. And always sitting on the floor can get old really, really fast.

As far as my perception of home, the U.S., I should note that I came to Japan ten days before 9/11 – thus the world in general was a very different place when I was still in the States versus what it was from almost the moment I got here. Add to this my sudden personal interest in politics and world events beginning on the morning of September 12th and yes, my views have changed appreciably since I arrived in Japan. Perhaps the most telling experience I can relate has been the change in my attitude – that’s not really the right word, though…maybe my inner response is a better term – regarding how I’ve felt when someone asks me where I’m from. In the first few days it was a veritable ego trip. The Japanese, at least the recent generations, love anything relating to the U.S., and when I’d tell someone I’m from America they’d invariably react with something bordering on awe if not mere admiration. It was really kind of silly. Then in those weeks after 9/11, I would answer the same question with a twinge of…oh crap, I need the right word again…Living here so long I’ve begun to lose my English, it’s crazy but it really happens, I swear. I don’t think I used to be this stupid. Anyway, when I told people I was from America they’d have this sudden sadness in their expression, their voice, you know, ‘Oh I’m so sorry what happened’ or whatever. And I mean it was sincere. Turned out I didn’t know anyone personally who died on that day but it was a national tragedy and at least in this part of the world people were mourning with us.
But then G.W. rolled in with his ten-gallon agenda – all right, this has been hashed out a million times, I don’t need to go into it. But as time went on I began feeling embarrassed when I told people, whether in Japan or Malaysia or Chile, that I was from the States. Not because I suddenly thought my country was bad but hey, that fiasco was all the news anyone was getting practically, so for a while, that was the tipping point as far as the world’s view of the U.S.. And it wasn’t entirely unfounded. I would be immensely proud of my son if he stood up to the schoolyard bully to keep another kid from being pounded for his lunch money; I wouldn’t be a proud or a happy dad if he started lying to me about why he was throwing rocks at people. Beyond this, though, I’ve had so many people tell me they loved the U.S. when they visited, or would die for a chance to travel to the States, and this makes me immensely proud.

Also, having done a fair amount of traveling in these nine years, from Asia to South America to Europe and Morocco and Australia, my view of the U.S. has not been shaped merely by whatever my students think and what I can get off the web. To see how so much of the rest of the world lives - and I mean seeing it firsthand, which is worlds apart from watching the same thing on 60 Minutes, or checking out some magazine article on what Brad Pitt and Angelina Voight are doing – actually being in these places, living them, I see how very very lucky we are in the U.S., from our standard of living to our freedoms to just how cheap we get everything. And since the only exposure so many people are getting to the outside world is through TV - where nothing is real, really - so few people can appreciate the extent to which we are blessed. I go home and overhear people complaining about this or that and I want to club them over the head.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Carrying a Tune

Last week, among the many mentions of and references to John Lennon on the 30th anniversary of his death, I spotted an interesting thread on facebook. Okay, using 'interesting' and 'facebook' in the same sentence shows a lack of qualitative judiciousness, so let me say instead that it was simply amusing. Of course, the thread became instantaneously more amusing once I jumped in. (I believe, by believing this, that this puts me in the self-aggrandizing facebooking majority.)


So in this thread on or around John Lennon's tragic anniversary someone mentioned the song 'You Won't See Me,' which was written by Paul. I don't recall the reason or significance of the song with regards to the original conversation, I only remember how the mention of the song was meaningful to me. (This because I am in the self-absorbed facebooking majority.)

My brain, like God and Google, works in mysterious ways. The connections that form up there in my spongy gray matter fall well within the cross-over realm of miracles and algorithms – or, in non-believer math hater terms, coincidental, self-deluding hooey. Usually these associations arise in the context of riding my bicycle, when my mind is clear of needy kids and writer's block and basic traffic safety rules. And, usually, it involves a song I haven't heard in years.

Biking through the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam, fresh off a spectacular wipeout involving a preoccupation with my rear tire and an old man with astonishing powers of spontaneous materialization, I was beginning to worry. Back on Koh Chang Island in Thailand I found out that my derailleur was sorely misaligned. Trying to shift onto my Frisbee (the largest chain ring on the front half of the chain drive) my chain refused to catch on any of those forty-eight teeth and wedged itself quite impressively down in between said Frisbee and the middle chain ring. Thirty minutes and a dozen bloody knuckles later I finally pried him free. Less than an hour later I'd forgotten it all – Koh Chang is quite nice – and ended up leaving more blood and shreds of skin in the sand on the side of the road. Small miracle and a fortunate turn of physics that I didn't then snap my newly-gouged chain pushing my loaded tandem up over mountain roads that make Lombard Street in San Francisco look like a wheelchair ramp. I had a chain tool, so mechanically I was ready; thing was, I had no idea how to use it. Nor did I have the slightest idea how to correctly replace a broken spoke (or ten) if I happened to get another close-up of an old man doing his Star Trek thing. By the time I busted the cable on my drum brake in the Vietnamese highlands I was already hearing the first notes of a melody that would remain with me for the next two months.

Quick, name a song by the SOS Band. Here, I'll give you a hint: 'Just be good to me, in the morning. Just be good to me, in the afternoon...' The song came out in 1983 and I might not have heard it since, but there it was in my head, the chorus going round and around and around. 'I'll be good to you, you'll be good to me, we will be together, be together...' The cool part is, all the begging and pleading worked. My bike carried me through the rest of Indochina with only a flat tire in Vientienne and a sticky brake cable, the plastic casing having partially melted somewhere among the sado-masochistic road system in northern Thailand.

On a scorching afternoon in Cambodia, on the same trip, I was pushing down an endless dirt road searching for a place I could get some water – preferably the bottled, non-malarial variety. I didn't want a coke; I didn't want to stop for a coke-sized water that I would completely sweat out just getting my loaded tandem moving on down the road again. I wanted the until-then ubiquitous liter size. And, evidently, my brain thought singing about it would help me deal. This time, not only did I get a song, I got two verses worth of original lyrics to go with my burgeoning dehydration.

The next time you have Bonnie Tyler's 'Holding Out For A Hero' stuck in your head, try these alternate lyrics:

I need a liter!
I'm holding out for a liter till my throat runs dry.
It's got to be fresh and it's got to be cool
And it's got to attach to my bike.
I need a li-TER!!
I'm holding out for a liter if the price is right.
I'll give you the cash put your fingers up fast
But it better not have parasites...

Okay, I'll concede it's not as poetic as the original but this was not something I worked on. You (I) can't come up with stuff like this with a parched throat, angry legs and a sore butt surrounded by nothing but the Cambodian countryside. Hooey on the surface maybe, but miraculous somehow underneath.

Every time I bike through a fishing village in Japan, or anywhere else for that matter, one particular Japanese song gently, merrily explodes in my head. Translation: 'Fish, fish, fish, when you eat fish, head head head, head gets smarter.' I usually head for the mountains when I get on my bike now.

In Nagano Prefecture there's a scenic mountain road called the Venus Line. Guess what song I had in my head for all 32 kilometers of it? Heading out of Malacca, Malaysia I passed a street vendor selling bread and rolls and such, which got me hooked on 'Do You Know The Muffin Man?' That was a fun four hours.

Despite my general innocent disregard for safety I rarely forget to bring my headlamp with me when I am heading out on the bike at night. I do, however, sometimes forget to recharge the batteries. And there are days when I leave with plenty of daylight left but still end up not making it home until after dark. Of course, having a (working) headlamp helps me see all the cracks and potholes and curbs in the road before I hit them, but for the most part it is much more important in its function of letting other people know I am about to slam into their fender. (The same goes for the headlights on your car; if you don't believe me try it sometime.) Thus when my headlamp is less than fully operable (or fully present) I have to keep in mind that while I can see that car pulling out of that side street five yards up ahead, that person can't see me. And my brain, ever on the lookout for opportunities to drown me in songs I would otherwise never hear, in or out of my head, starts in with that Beatles song again. But only the one line, repeated over and over and over and over because it is the only line I know. Of course, it is the only line I need. If my wife suddenly starts ignoring me then maybe the rest of the song will come to me. Though more likely the words to 'I'm Free' by the Rolling Stones would fill my head. 'Yes I'm free, to do what I want, any old time...'

Winding up yet another blog post reminds me of one other example of a song in my brain melding seamlessly with circumstance. This one too involves a Beatles song – specifically, the only line in 'Eleanor Rigby' written by Ringo.

'Father McKenzie, writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear...'

Because I suspect I am alone in the Kevin Kato-absorbed facebooking minority.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Luxury: The New Spirituality

Enjoy Nature Without Having to Deal With it

Our chosen route out of Phnom Penh.
A number of years ago I flew to Cambodia to meet up with two friends who were riding tandem bicycles around the world. This was to be my first trip to a country without any semblance of a sanitation department so naturally I was pretty excited.

I'd travel with them along a common route: Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and the venerable temples of Angkor. Our mode of travel would be something less than standard. On the first day we pedaled just shy of 100 kilometers, along undulating dirt roads cutting across tree-studded plains baking in the heat, with only an occasional village to keep us on the more pleasurable side of dehydration.

At breakfast (plates of rice and mystery on a wobbly table at a roadside shack) my cycling buddies poured small packets of oraange something into their bottles of purified water. ‘Electrolytes,’ one of them said in response to my inquiry. Pixie dust, I told myself. But okay. These guys were biking around the world, they needed a lot of electrolytes. I was only there for a week. And besides I was no hotshot cyclist, I was just a hotshot. Plain water was good enough for me.

At our guest house that evening, curled up and clutching my stomach, unable to keep down so much as a leaf of Cambodian lettuce, I pondered the real-life effects of cellular osmosis and how I might ask for electrolytes at a drug store in Cambodia.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Guest Blogger Christopher Carr of The Inductive on Teaching a Foreign Language

Brilliant! Have a guest blogger post on my page and my output goes up with barely a diaper-change worth of effort. Why didn’t I think of this before?
Okay, actually I didn't think of it; this was Christopher's brainchild. The guy's got ideas coming out of his pores – check out his blog, The Inductive, and you’ll see what I mean. He is nothing if not proficient...and well-read...and insightful...
This doesn't necessarily mean I agree with him.
I can't stand teaching kids. This is has nothing to do with their ability to learn so much as it does my inability to maintain any sort of control over them without looking like the Shinto equivalent of the anti-Christ. Trust me, boss, you might want to just cancel class today...
The silver lining here is that, as Chris and I teach out of the same place, there is no discussion necessary when a kids class and an adults class happen to overlap. He reaches for the playing cards and I get the coffee ready.
In all seriousness, I feel fortunate to have crossed paths with Christopher. I first read his following post a few days ago, and since then I've found opportunity to try to teach my own son the concept of self-control, with amazing results. In vying for attention at home, he is beginning to see alternatives to stepping on his little brother's fingers.

Okay, on to Christopher Carr and today's topic: Teaching a Foreign Language
(For those of you accustomed to reading my normal posts, I apologize for the big words.)


As a teacher of English as a foreign language, I prefer teaching kids to teaching adults. There are several reasons for this. The first is that our civilization has wildly misunderstood the nature of language learning, and teaching kids doesn't require any unschooling. Adults don't learn second languages easily. There is usually a lot of unfounded, reductionist neurotechnobabble behind this assertion, but in practice it's because adults are often unwilling to look foolish. Adults learn facts about languages instead of languages. Kids on the other hand are seldom embarrased when they make mistakes. The trial-and-error style of learning required to learn a new language comes naturally to them. If adults are to succeed at language learning, they must either be shameless sociopaths or fluent in the metacognition behind language learning. (Check out this article in The New Yorker.) Apropos, language learning is something that suits the learning style of just jumping right in preferred by kids over the taxonomic style of learning preferred by besuited economic automata.

The second reason I prefer teaching kids to adults is related to the first: kids don't ask stupid questions. (It's often said that there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers, but, if your question produces a stupid answer, is it wise to ask it in the first place?) Usually kids don't need to be discouraged from asking questions uniquely tailored to their particular abilities, the answers to which confer vital subjective knowledge. Kids are usually far more perceptive of inference and intuitive knowledge than adults. There are some kids that struggle with language learning, and in my experience it seems they often have a lot of heavy-handed adults in their lives.

"Japan" could change its name to "heavy-handed adult place" and not miss a beat. I can't tell you how many times I hear the words "dame!" and "abunai!" from adults lazy and lethargic from chain-smoking shouting at their kids from across the play area. In short, the Culture of No makes everyone stupider (taxonomic knowledge is excluded) as a function of age. I had an elderly student tell me last week that she had no idea how to have fun. She then asked stupid vocabulary and grammar questions for twenty minutes; I answered all with variations of "whatever". This is typical of most adult ESL classes.

The third reason I prefer teaching kids is that the one problem associated with teaching kids is entirely solvable: kids are crazy and out-of-control ids. In that respect, it's helpful to think of them like convicts. I had a friend go to jail a few years ago, and he told me that his first day, he sought out the biggest, meanest-looking guy in the place and sucker-punched him right in his big fat stupid meathead face while he was eating lunch. My friend got pummeled before the guards came to his assistance, but what he also got was respect from enterprising, social-climbing bitches, snitches, and perverts. Not only did the other prisoners not try to make my friend take their pockets, but they actually aspired to get in his good graces by bestowing upon him solemn offerings of toilet wine and hair dolls.

Likewise with kids, on my first day I pick up and punt whoever is the reigning shitbrat, and his betas make me their leader. No, that was a joke. What I do do though essentially relies on the same principle: if there is a kid who's fond of jamma-ing the heiwa, I usually make him submit by shunning him, kicking him out of the classroom, or subjecting him to repeated public ridicule. Once the alpha submits, so do the rest. All I have to do is outcrazy the craziest kid and the hearts and minds of the students are mine to direct towards whatever evil purpose I may in my darkest of dark hearts imagine, like learning English.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

It Was a Beautiful Day in Sydney

It was a beautiful day when my friend got on the train in Sydney three days ago. He was heading west to the Blue Mountains, a tranquil place touched by God. He was alone. He was feeling okay. Better than he had in a while. The world passed by outside his window. I wonder if it looked any different to him.


I went down under to see him in September, 2009. It had been a while, and it was a great excuse to travel. We climbed aboard that same train, along with my wife and my wonderful son. My friend had just returned to school. Both our lives had changed dramatically since our days teaching English in adjoining classrooms, where we could listen to each other conduct class and then roll with laughter on the walk home as we criticized each other mercilessly. In the seven years since our roads had narrowed. Yet our horizons remained wide, despite the haze floating over them from time to time.

My friend got off at Katoomba Station, where people still take your tickets and trade friendly words. The crowds were light, this being a Monday; there were plenty of empty seats in the coffee shops and cafes along Katoomba Street. My friend could have stopped somewhere, to rest his legs and treat himself, to ponder the beauty of the day. But like all people with places to go, he didn’t. He walked on, with an ease in his step that had been missing for far too long. A lightness that would disappear if he decided to just go home.

There are shuttle buses that run from the station down to the visitor center at Echo Point. It would have saved us time. But time, as much as the Blue Mountains themselves, was why we were there with our friend. So we walked Katoomba Street together. My wife and I took turns with the stroller, our friend ambled along behind us, visibly amused by our indifference to, or ignorance of, the length of the walk we were undertaking. ‘I would have pulled up stumps at the first sign of a beer,’ he’d later joke to his family. But if he did at the time think the walk might be too much he never gave any indication. Or maybe I’m not too good at picking up signals. And I wish to God I were.

Katoomba Street runs straight as an arrow, down a long hill and right back up another. There Katoomba Falls Road forks off to the right, leading past Maple Grove Park to Cliff Drive, Prince Henry Cliff Walk and a hundred places to stand and look out over the canyon below and the miles and miles of Blue Mountains running off into forever. Continuing on Katoomba Road brings you to Panorama Drive and Echo Point Road, which terminates at Echo Park and more breath-taking views from the cliffs that rise hundreds of feet straight up from the canyon floor. Behind the visitor center a path through a grove of gum trees leads to the Giant Stairway, a treacherous descent for anyone let alone a guy carrying his two-year-old son in his arms. I don’t know if my friend walked out to Echo Point three days ago; if he did perhaps he would have recalled our hike down those steps.

Our days teaching together had come to an end, but my friend and I kept in touch. While he maintained an appreciable collection of video games he felt not the slightest compulsion to get a cell phone. This, upon closer scrutiny, can actually appear quite congruent. He claimed to be a strong introvert, though no one who knew my friend would ever be inclined to agree. At work, at parties and on the street, he was never one to temper his boisterous urges. Which seemed to work in his favor until he said the wrong thing to the wrong person in a nightclub in Tokyo. He came to the next afternoon, no recollection of the last 24 hours. He’d suffered damage to his brain. He’d need immediate surgery. They scoured the surveillance tapes but the culprit would never be known.

No matter where my friend stood along those cliffs, he would be able to see Federal Pass Track, the trail that took us along the floor of the canyon. The ground was too rocky and rutted for the stroller; my wife and I shared kid-carrying duty while my friend folded up the stroller and carried it by his side in one big hand. Up ahead a cable car waited, for anyone not too keen on hoofing it back up to the top of the cliffs. My friend looked at us. We looked at him. He couldn’t believe we were actually going to pass on the cable car, but he smiled and followed us up another comically long and winding staircase. We’d end up walking back along Katoomba Street, all the way to the blessed benches on the platform at the station. ‘You guys are gamers,’ he said, collapsing in his seat. ‘I’d have never done that myself.’ Then after a moment he added, ‘Thanks.’

If I could choose one thing I would want going through my friend’s head as he looked down onto Federal Pass Track, this would be it.

As we made our way toward Echo Point I listened to my friend explain how he hoped to regain the Japanese he had learned over six years and then lost in a second. He was also studying German as well as economics and was looking forward to finishing his degree and getting a steady job teaching, at a high school or maybe a university. ‘Uni,’ he called it, in the common Aussie vernacular. But the headaches just wouldn’t go away, and he couldn’t concentrate no matter how hard he tried. He had a girlfriend, though she lived clear across the far side of Sydney and he only saw her so much. Over the years his old friends had all drifted away. ‘No worries, I need to put all my energy into my studies anyway.’

And he tried.

My friend stood out on those cliffs, somewhere. And maybe he did for one moment think about our time together there. Maybe he even smiled. But the weight of the life he was trying so hard to fend off became too much to bear. And the vastness of the Blue Mountains looked so peaceful.

It was a beautiful day in Sydney.

God be with you, my friend.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

One of the Crowd - 'A Year in Fukushima' Post #2

Pop Quiz: Which of these things is not like the others? Christmas, your birthday, Happy Hour, Income Tax Day. Think hard before you decide, because your first guess will be wrong.

I can already hear the smartypants answers.

'I got it! It's your birthday because it's the only one not capitalized!' Wrong, grammar police, everyone's birthday is capitalized. 'Okay wise guy, then it's Christmas because it's the only one that's religious!' Great, here comes the ACLU. 'Tax Day, of course,' the level-headed majority will confidently assert. 'Because it's not fun.' All right, sure, the lead-up isn't a party but come on, who doesn't get a kick out of sticking it to the IRS once a year? Come on Uncle Sam, fork it over. It's even better when a guy like Dubya starts tossing everyone an extra $300 to offset the ugly budget surplus he inherits.

'Then the answer must be Happy Hour, because, well...it's the only alliterative event, ha ha!' Not for Joe Blow born on February 4th or Sue Blew born on November 9th.

The answer is in fact Happy Hour. Because it is the only one that happens more than once a year. Until you have kids that is. And then it becomes a once-a-year occasion, and like all the others a very special event indeed.

IRS audits notwithstanding.

As birthdays and Christmas and Happy Hours are celebrated with as much fervor here in Japan as Labor Day is in the States, and I honestly have no idea when Japan's Tax Day is, I have been forced to find other yearly occasions to look forward to. My favorites are springtime cherry blossom parties, sumo tournaments and October. Why do I like October? Used to be because of my birthday, until I turned 40. Now it is because October is when Fukushima holds its annual Aki Matsuri, their Fall Festival.

I had only been in Japan six weeks the first time I witnessed the barrage of drums, flutes and people in split-toed booties shouting and pulling huge wooden carts draped with red lanterns through the streets. At this point even a trip to the 7-11 was still a relative voyage into the unknown, if only for those unidentifiable chunks of food floating in square metal tubs filled with murky brown liquid next to the register. At my first festival, standing in the middle of a swarm of people shouting words found in no existing Japanese dictionary and taking pictures of the backs of each others' heads with their cell phones, I felt I was in another world. And indeed I was. This, I thought, was why I had come to Japan.

Fast forward to the following Spring. A student of mine asks me if I want to go out for yakitori after class. 'Have you ever been to a yakitori bar?' she says in the exact same tone people use when they ask me, nine years after moving here, if I am able to use chopsticks. 'No, I haven't,' I answer truthfully and thus without a hint of sarcasm. An hour later we were walking into Hanawa-san's yakitori joint.

I mainly listened and filled my face as my friend (she was very nice but this was not a date as far as I was concerned) and Hanawa-san spoke in a language I still struggle with to this day. What did they talk about? To this day I don't have a clue. It was only once we'd left that my friend explained that Hanawa-san wanted me to join their neighborhood group for the festival that Fall. I stormed back inside to tell him 'Hell yeah.' Then I had to wait for my friend to come in and translate.

That Fall I walked into what was to that point the greatest day of my life in Japan. Everyone swarmed around me, smiling and shaking hands (it's funny, I could just tell they weren't used to shaking hands, with anyone). They asked me my name and my age and my blood type. Someone handed me a beer. Someone else slipped a happi (festival jacket) over my arms and onto my shoulders. The older women hid their huge smiles with their hands; the younger girls giggled and snapped pictures with their cell phones. Little kids plucked at my arm hair. And all I had done was show up, with a bag of fruit from the supermarket and a bottle of mid-range sake which Hanawa-san hurriedly placed next to the mountain of food and the forest of sake bottles already on the table.

Before we set out for the streets I was ushered up the ladder to the top of the dashi (the wooden wagon with the red lanterns all over) so Watanabe-san could take a few souvenir photos for me. Later on I was told to climb aboard again, this time to sit at the O-daiko, the huge drum, and pose for a couple more memory shots, this time with Hanawa-san. Aside from this – and the ambitious flow of beer and sake still being poured my way – I was left to mix in as just another member of the Ban-se-cho crowd.

Kind of prophetic.

This past weekend I participated in the Fall Festival once again, the seventh time I would don the dark blue Ban-se-cho happi – though I'd have to pull it on myself. Everyone still knows my name, except for the young kids who weren't even born the first time I joined the party. Sadly, there are still some people whose names I don't know, which is a bit inconvenient not to mention potentially embarrassing when I have to ask one of them from the back of the dashi for another beer. Yeah, this is my seventh year...yeah, nice to see you again...Um, what's your name again? That's right, of course, hey anymore asahi in that box?... Most everyone says hi to me when I show up now, but they no longer swarm. The girls can't be bothered taking my picture, they've all got text messages to send. I even have to get my own sake half the time. No one offers anymore to take a picture of me on the dashi, or even just let me pound on the taiko a little. 'Just get back there and start pushing,' they say. The only time I go up on top now is to help clean up after the girls have had all the fun riding around town singing and laughing and eating and drinking and not having to push. I am invited to climb the ladder at the end of the last night of the festival every year though only to help haul down the impossibly heavy generator that has been powering all the light bulbs in all those red lanterns.

With two sons now I've become even more invisible.

But I think I rather like it this way. The rock star treatment was fun the first time around – and as I continue traveling Japan it still happens occasionally. After seven festivals, though, it would be pretty odd to be regarded as anyone special. And in Japan, where the common lament among foreigners is that making them feel like foreigners is what the Japanese do best, I feel pretty good about being regarded as just one of the Ban-se-cho crowd.

Though I'd still like another crack at that taiko.

Odds and ends:
That first year I decided not to spring for the $100 for my own Ban-se-cho happi, thinking I might not be around the next year. For seven festivals I've asked to borrow someone's extra happi, giving the same excuse every time. Meanwhile my mom has one in a closet in New Jersey, an impromptu gift from a tipsy Hanawa-san at a party after my wedding. I could steal it next time I'm home, but then I think nah, I probably won't be in Japan much longer...

On the third and final day of the festival everyone gathers in the morning to carry the Mikoshi, the miniature shrine, around town on their shoulders. This mikoshi is wrapped in white and purple cloth, has a tinny, rattly rooster frozen in a permanent squawk on top, and weighs about the same as a Volkswagen. This shrine is mounted on four long 6x6 pieces of black-painted wood, which rest (bounce, really, or slam down) on the shoulders of as many people as can squeeze under it. As I am taller than most Japanese people, mine is the first shoulder the Volkswagen slams down onto with each collective step we take, and by the end of the day my spine resembles a piece of macaroni. I also have a permanent scar on one shoulder. (This year I passed on the mikoshi.)

When a family member passes away, it is customary in Japan to refrain from taking part in any sort of festival for the year. Sadly, Hanawa-san was conspicuously absent this past weekend.

The day after my first Aki Matsuri I spotted myself in the feature picture on the front page of the Minpo, Fukushima's newspaper; I was talking to my then-girlfriend Mayumi. This past Monday a very small me was in the front page picture again, along with the rest of Ban-se-cho and a few thousand other people. This time I was carrying my son.

As with every other year, I'm now sitting at home, wondering if I've joined my friends for the last time.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Marking Time - 'A Year in Fukushima' Post #1

The running joke (no longer funny if it ever was in the first place) is that my life in Japan amounts to an extended working vacation. Really, the only funny thing in this (funny ironic, not funny chuckle-snort) is that the term working vacation makes no sense to me. Either (a) you are on vacation but you are so busy or wound up or both that you bring your work with you (‘Come on Dad, let's go in the water!’‘Hold on Jimmy, just gotta clean up this report and fudge I mean balance the quarterlies.’) or (b) you are extremely unproductive and/or the people in the surrounding cubicles have threatened to stage a walk-out if you don't stop resting your nose on the top ledge and saying in your Mr. Magoo voice I see you've been playing Farmville again and your boss as a last resort before canning your butt has sent you off to see how you perform in what he calls an 'alternate environment.'


Or (c) you have landed a job in a foreign country, which feels like a vacation but the reality is you go to work and then you spend your free time in novel ways until you have been abroad so long the novel has become routine. And you decide you need a vacation.

Personally I prefer vacationing in places I've never been. My wife has taken such a liking to family though I find myself heading back stateside more and more. Having babies she wants to show off only intensifies her strange affinity for New Jersey. This past month, however, we spent in California, taking advantage of an invitation to a friend's wedding and the generous hospitality of my sister in San Bernadino. I've always thought if I ever move back to the US it would be somewhere out in the wide open west, despite the underlying cultural epidemic grounded in over-sized pickups, reality TV and tattoo magazines. Bottom line though, I'd much rather be a couple hours from Yosemite than a couple minutes from Wal-Mart.

When I was in college in Washington, DC I would go home for Thanksgiving and Christmas break. Getting off the highway, driving down Route 10 and Ridgedale Avenue and Cambridge Road and into my driveway, I would look around at everything that hadn't changed and marvel at how different it all seemed. At night I'd lay down in the same bed I'd slept in my entire life, and even with my eyes closed and the room dark it all felt different somehow. Even with that same sag in the middle of the mattress. Going from Japan back to the States gives the same sort of effect, only on a magnified scale. Why are the people at the airport so surly? The New York subway has gotten so grimy and dirty. Hey when did the girls at the bars all get so chubby? To be fair, the same sort of thing happens when I return to Japan. The muzak at the supermarket has never been as annoying as it was this morning.

But this is all prelude. Being away from a place we are to any degree familiar with, and then returning to that place, the way we see and perceive things – and, if we care to, the way we think about our surroundings, from the material to the intangible – it all tends to change. Two weeks ago the apples in the Safeway in San Mateo resembled all the apples I'd ever seen before, yet now they were ridiculously shiny, which made me notice how perfect the entire produce section looked, which stirred in me a momentary sense of gratitude for having been born in a land of such plenty, though I then began to wonder how natural all this natural food really was. And it has probably looked like this since before I was born, I just never thought about it until I spent some time perusing the markets of southeast Asia. Two days ago, back in Japan after a month in America, I looked at a rice field and saw something I'd never seen before.

The rice looked the same as it always does in the Fall – tall and golden and top-heavy. Bending down, pointing out to my son how the color meant the rice was ready to be harvested so we can eat it, something else entirely occurred to me.

This is how I have come to mark time.

When I was a kid the constructs of weeks and months were defined by artificial means: Summer is over because school is starting; sales on candy, Halloween's on the way; songs on the radio mean that soon it will be Christmas. Super Bowl, Opening Day, Fourth of July fireworks. We go to the beach every August. These are the things that ushered in the seasons. As an adult the signals are less spirited: TGIF and long Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends; mowing the lawn and shoveling the driveway; sarcastic birthday cards. The seasonal weather of course can not be ignored – unless you live in a place that has none – but even these can seem to defy our ability to clearly perceive the passing of time: Summer's over already? God, will the cold ever let up? Where the heck did Spring go? And the weeks and months and years march on, right under our noses.

Japan has established her own markers: company bonuses in April and December; six sumo tournaments a year; work-related gatherings called Bo-nen-kai, which translates into 'forget about the year parties' and amounts to eating and drinking with your co-workers in the spirit of collectively accepting the fact that everyone has basically sacrificed their lives for the well-being of the city water system or the department store or the oil seal manufacturing industry.

Yet in Japan there are also more sublime reminders of the passing of time and the eternal essence of existence (if I may wax esoteric). There is the springtime tradition of O-hanami, well-known even outside of Japan as the eagerly-anticipated custom of getting together with family friends and colleagues to eat, drink, talk, sing karaoke and otherwise enjoy and appreciate the beauty of the flowering cherry blossoms. Some people may even pause to appreciate the short-lived blossom season as an allusion to the fleeting nature of life on Earth for all living things, though most people seem to be more interested in simply having a good time and letting off steam and forgetting that they have sacrificed their lives for the good of the city water system.

Another Japanese remembrance of time tied to nature is that the vernal and autumnal equinoxes are official national holidays. And they do not move them around to allow for three-day weekends either. June 21st is on a Tuesday this year? Okay, work and school on Monday then a day off to enjoy the sun as it hangs over the equator. That is, if Dad isn't going in to work to check on the water flow valves just to be safe, and little Hiroyuki isn't going off to cram school for a special eight-hour pre-calc tutorial to make sure he's ready for the middle school entrance exam next March.

As I am neither preparing for any sort of entrance exams nor have I sacrificed my adult life for any utility whatsoever, thus nullifying my chances to truly appreciate meteorological days off, to receive bonuses or go to Bo-nen-kai, I see my time passing in rice and peaches.

The phenomenon is certainly not unique to me or to Japan; people who work closely with the land or the sea, who watch and depend on the heavens as a matter of health and survival, will probably measure time's passing similarly. Only it is something I never experienced until I came to Japan. And it never really occurred to me until I walked past that rice field two days ago.

My wife's parents live on a peach farm, and are able to grow a tremendous amount of vegetables for themselves. What I suppose I knew but never appreciated until I started hanging around the farm is how certain things grow at certain times of the year. In the cold of winter people are outside hanging persimmon to dry and taking in the hakusai, a lettuce-like leafy pale green vegetable that goes into so much winter-time cooking around here. It's fresh, it's organic, and my mother-in-law can do wonders with it. But it only grows for so many weeks; when there's no more hakusai to be had, I know that Spring is on the way. Which means strawberries will for a while be plentiful and cheap. As the peach trees begin to bud in April it is time to start working on them. It takes a couple of weeks to pare down the number of peach buds on each branch of each tree; fewer peaches on the branches mean larger peaches, not to mention much less work in June when the peaches need to be individually covered in bags made of old newspaper (there's a company who makes them and sells them by the hundreds of thousands, and that's all they do) to keep the sunlight off them so they don't turn red and lose their sweetness. For forty years my wife's parents tended to over two hundred peach trees – about a hundred thousand peaches. Every year they put those little bags on the peaches. One at a time, by hand. When my father-in-law got sick two summers ago we all pitched in to save the family's harvest and income. I now have a monumental respect for farmers.

After a relative respite in July the peaches are ready for picking in August. No problem, I figured. I was all thumbs getting those stupid little bags on those stupid little pre-peaches but I can certainly pick them and put them in crates. Or so I thought until I saw that peaches don't grow at all the same speed. On every tree and every branch, peaches grow at varying rates. This is still a mystery to me; I wanted to ask but my mother-in-law just told me to get picking. So we made our rounds, checking all the peaches on all two hundred trees, picking only the big ones. The small ones we would get on subsequent rounds when they were bigger, heavier, and thus worth more as they sell by weight. But wait too long to pick them and they grow soft and are therefore unsellable as they won't make it through the transportation process without getting brown and mushy and nasty. When the picking is finally done that means Fall is just around the corner. This means that the nashi, the Japanese pears, are just about in season. Then the weather turns colder and the apples begin to ripen.

Through all this, the rice fields turn from swaths of brown to massive squares of irrigated water, to pools with neat lines of green sprouts sticking up through the surface. Soon the fields are thick with rows of growing shoots, which turn a beautiful green before becoming  heavenly golden sheaves. Which are in due time cut and gathered, leaving bare fields of earth once again. And another season has passed.

This weekend Fukushima holds its annual Inari Shrine Fall Festival. We will go downtown and meet with friends to drink, talk, laugh and dress up in our traditional festival garb. We will yell and sing to celebrate another year's blessings, pulling through the streets these huge wooden floats, dripping with red lanterns on all sides. The sound of drums and flutes will fill the air. Age-old Japan will be visible everywhere, mixed in with the hum of electric generators for the lanterns and cases and cases of Asahi beer. It's Fall in Fukushima. Winter is on the way.

I biked past that same rice field this morning, on the way to the supermarket. There's nothing there now but two huge squares of mud, lined with the brown remains of the rice plants that have been harvested once again.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

How I'm spending my 10th year in Japan.

I read somewhere that Dan Brown spent nine years researching and writing The DaVinci Code. Nine years! For all the research and writing. Dan, you shameless slacker. I've devoted an entire nine years just to the researching of the various shades of mystery comprising the cultural anomaly known to most outsiders as Japan. (Those of us who live here tend to use the more accurate term ‘This F+++ing Place.’) Only now do I feel the time is right to nail down and expose in words the secrets imbued in this silly society.

It's true I've paused now and again to offer my sometimes witty and always superficial insights into my adopted home – an underdeveloped habit which by all evidence has kept both people who have been reading my stuff irascibly satiated if not outwardly hostile. But beyond my early, impetuous mass emails to the folks back home and my recent and impossibly ungraceful back flip into the blogosphere (and, if my memory is correct, a sake-induced letter-writing frenzy somewhere in the middle there) I've managed to keep my trite perceptions to a blessed minimum. Today, however, I decided this had to change. I'm not sure who would want to follow me through a year of unraveling life in small-town Japan, but why let that stop me? I've traveled alone before.

I've been meaning to do this since those first few days and weeks here in Zipang, when everything was fresh, new and exciting – like the sight of a pair of a drunken salarymen on stolen bicycles, clattering wire baskets and aluminum fenders, rumbling over the bumpy yellow blind people strips in the sidewalk, flying at me like two human knuckleballs (this all makes sense once you've experienced it, trust me). But just like assigning my students homework and filing my income taxes, week after week and year after year writing it all down was something I just never quite got around to.

True to rational form, I get to it in the midst of a wild bout of jet-lag.

They say by and large people are driven to act not by the potential for gain but by the fear of loss. And it is the prospect of leaving Japan, the ever more tangible sense that my time here is running short, that spurs me on to this year-long endeavor. (It was also the idea of maybe moving back stateside that put me back in touch with Uncle Sam after seven years.) (I'm still leaning toward Europe though.) I've got no schedule set. I don't have the vaguest idea when I might find myself packing up the family and heading for the horizon. But returning to Japan yesterday, more than any other time I've returned from a place that made infinitely more sense to me, I felt the need to take a good look around me, to see and understand this f+++ing place better than I have for the last nine years.

Ironically, starting now, this may be the most uninteresting of my years here in Japan. This is not to say life will be boring with two little boys in the house, one of them just beginning to crawl and the other preparing to stomp on his fingers if he goes near his toys. But this sort of thing is the same anywhere, just with slightly different toys and health care systems. In previous years I biked over mountains and alongside oceans; taught doctors, businessmen and professors during the week and chatted with farmers and fishermen on the weekend; lived and worked in a dozen cities and partied in many more; witnessed centuries-old traditions and slept in temples twice as aged; dated a truck driver. And while much of this makes for good stories to tell (and better stories to keep secret) they comprise a disjointed tale of what it means to live in this ridiculous, amazing land.

Just what I need, another writing project to add to the pile.

If either of you is beginning to worry (or thank the Lord) that I am changing my tune here, let me add that I fully internd to continue tossing out half-witted, entirely superficial bits from time to time, about whatever I feel the world needs to know at that specific moment. But starting today – or okay, whenever the jet-lag eases – I'm going on a year-long literary walk around Japan, in search of the things I've missed these past nine years.

I hope you'll come along.

Both of you.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

To Sharpen or Recharge?

This post is Part II of what began as a single post. But it was getting too long so I decided to split the story into two parts. Until I began drooling on the keyboard writing this part into the wee hours. Part III (and possibly IV) are forthcoming. Probably.


Part I, in case you missed it, ended with me sitting on a bucket between two dripping wet naked men. This should be all the update you need. Proceed.

I am a pencil and paper guy in an iPhone world. Blackberry? Piece of fruit as far as I’m concerned. I’ve never seen a Kindle outside of Amazon’s homepage. I’ve met a couple of iPhones in person but I don’t think I’ve actually shaken hands with one. I didn’t even have the slightest compulsion to get any sort or species of cell phone until I moved to Tokyo in 2003, and only then because I was falling under threat of deportation for what the local authorities were calling my ‘suspicious resistance to conform.’ (This of course based not solely on my failure to carry a ‘keitai’ at all times; I didn’t wear a black suit and matching black tie to work every day, I offered my seat on the train to old women instead of pretending to be asleep, and I showed no interest in Japanese comic books, soft porn or otherwise. All troubling tendencies for a population clinging to the psychological comfort and safety of not being expected to manifest an original thought.)

On my desk (my wife’s desk from her high school years to be specific), sitting next to my laptop (which I bought used four years ago when my previous secondhand laptop crapped out on me) is my trusty black address book. Do they even make these things anymore? I don’t know, probably. I haven’t shopped for one in a while. The plastic-ish, vinyl-ish cover on this one fell off several years ago, but I taped it back on and so far it has held. On the back page I have names and numbers of people on my Denver league soccer team. I haven’t even seen Denver in 9 years. Other numbers are of friends from when I lived in Arlington, Virginia, when George Bush – the first one – was still in office. I don’t even remember who half of these people were. And the time zone and area code map on the front page doesn’t show a single area code that doesn’t have a 0 or 1 in the middle. This thing doesn’t have a print date, it has a carbon date.

So why is it on my desk? Because my son has recently become intrigued with the concept of calling people – anyone – using our combination telephone/fax machine with the receiver with the cord. I give him my address book and let him dial any number he wants because none of them are good anymore. Except for my sisters and a few college buddies, but if he calls one of them I can jump on and say hi and save myself an overseas postage stamp.

Anyway, so I have this cell phone. It even takes pictures. It also has this memo pad function as well as a voice recorder doo-dad, but I still carry a pen and a few old store receipts around at all times in case I need to write something down – like someone’s phone number. And I could sign up for Internet service right through that little inch-thick wonder but really, I don’t need live updates on the Yankees, I don’t care that Paris Hyatt is now trending, no one on facebook needs to know that I am hot and my train is crowded, and until very recently I have never needed to check my email now. The only reason I even keep that thing with me (when I don’t forget I actually own a cell phone and leave it on the yellowing notebook I am using to outline my next novel) is in case my wife needs me to pick up some onions on my bike-ride home.

This changed, if only slightly, on my recent trip to Tokyo.

I had never felt so good after ten minutes sitting on a bucket between two dripping wet naked men. A day on your feet in Tokyo in July is not conducive to staying fresh and dry, no matter how much time you spend wandering lost through the labyrinthine and partially air-conditioned Ikebukuro underground. And though nightfall brought some degree of relief, thirty minutes combing the humid, neon-laced streets of Omiya in search of an inexpensive hotel without hourly rates and rotating beds is going to leave you feeling slimy. Enough so that you’re willing to bathe in a communal shower and hot spring (until someone starts talking to you about hourly rates and rotating beds).

Omiya, interestingly enough, was my very first destination when I arrived in Japan on September 1, 2001. The company training center was there in town, and all the newbies would spend a week there learning how to drill scraps of English into our students’ heads in such a way that they would think they were having a good time. After that initial week I’d been invited back several times to show the folks at headquarters how much I wasn’t improving as a teacher, and every time I’d paid a visit to Manboh. This was where I was headed as I stepped out into the cool midnight air and made my way back toward Omiya Station.

Nothing seemed to have changed; they still had the blue-tinted glass door in front, and inside they still had the same black light atmosphere, in all likelihood to shadow the fact that the kids working there would rather be anywhere but there, asking you if you wanted to go with the special four-hour marathon session they were promoting. Again the girl asked, impressively hiding her malaise with the kind of smile I am convinced only Japanese girls can turn, and again I said no, I only wanted a half hour to check my email and take obscene advantage of the free drink bar. She then used approximately forty-five Japanese words to tell me to use computer Number 9 and handed me a receipt on a tiny plastic clipboard that showed me when my time to raid the vending machines was up.

Armed with three paper cups of coffee and one hot cocoa for variety I wound my way through the dark rows of blue-tinted private booths until I found Number 9. Then, with my hands full and my coffee more or less burning my fingers through the paper cups I sat on the door handle and entered my rented world butt-first. And stepped right into the side of my chair, the physics of the next half-second allowing my coffee to bypass the paper cups and start burning my skin directly. But now was not the time for pain; I had twenty-eight minutes to go through my emails and then jump on facebook to let people I otherwise never speak to know where I was.

Before leaving Fukushima I had emailed a few people in Tokyo, explicitly asking them to get back to me (if they were going to) on my cell phone. I gave them my number. I typed out my phone mail address. I was even nice, and didn’t use any of those efficient terms like ‘tmrw’ or ‘if ur l8’ because I didn’t want to give the impression I was trying to be quick and efficient, which in my mind translates to ‘Hi I haven’t seen you in forever but no time to talk now can I crash on your floor?’ Yet here they were, all responding with incomplete sentences and a click of the Reply button – because of course that is the quickest and most efficient way to communicate. So I have to guess they assumed I could check my email from my iPhone. Or would at least be smart enough to stop in an Internet café before committing to the forty-minute train ride from Tokyo to Omiya.

As it turned out, one of my friends had in fact emailed me back earlier in the day, offering in not so many words to let me crash that night if I needed to. My first impulse was to chide him for not getting back to me on my cell phone, but this would do no good. My fault, I need to anticipate when people are going to inconvenience me like this and chide them beforehand. Then of course I’d probably be on my way to Omiya five minutes after being hung up on so the whole process is an unavoidable wash. But if I had stayed at my friend’s place I would have missed out on more free coffee than any human being of any size should be drinking at midnight. In this I was ahead of the game.

Also waiting in my inbox was a response from a woman who had time to meet up that afternoon – a woman with three zillion potential connections for me. But setting aside an hour for her might have denied me the experience that day of putting on a shirt and tie in the midday heat so I could walk into Sanseido Bookstore and get shot down faster than a Mexican driving into Arizona. And I hate missing out on those character-building moments.

After one final drink bar run – I had to try something called the Expressa au Lait – I found myself out of time and unable to let the facebook world know I was tired and ready for bed. I handed my clipboard to the girl with the smile and took out three hundred yen as she launched into a glib and very polite minute-long speech about how I owed her three hundred yen. I could have extended my time for a buck per fifteen minutes I suppose, but I was so caffeinated by now I’d end up spending the next two hours scrolling past innumerable farm game and mafia battle updates to see how my friends felt about the final episode of Lost. Personally I’d rather sit on a bucket between two dripping wet naked men.

Which is where I was once again twenty minutes later.

I’m still a pencil and paper guy at heart. But in today’s world, pencil and paper guys miss out on timely messages from friends and chances to meet up with people with three zillion potential connections.

Next time I find myself in Omiya, I may not need to make a stop in Manboh. Not to check email anyway. But even if I do decide to spring for the extra yen and hook my 5-year-old cell phone up to the web, I think I’ll continue to keep a pen and a couple store receipts on me, just in case. Because paper doesn’t go dead. And address books, no matter how old, never crash and are exceptionally immune to hackers.

In the meantime, I’ve made a pact with myself to at least up my technological agility and communicative availability on my next trip to Tokyo by ducking into a Net café every few hours. The downside is, I won’t be able to take a picture of my lunch and post it on my facebook profile.

As a pencil and paper guy, I’m okay with that.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Moment of Normal

So I’m dripping wet, sitting on a tiny plastic bucket in between two other naked men, and all I can think is ‘Man, life is weird.’ Now, you may not think there’s a whole lot of debate in considering sitting naked on a plastic bucket dripping wet between two other dripping wet naked men weird. Yet this was one of the few moments of my day that was entirely unfettered by any form or degree of parasympathetic fight or flight impulses. In other words, this was the normal part of today.


Since 6am when my alarm roused me – it was now around 11 at night – the only other measurable stretch of time my system wasn’t redlining was during the nap I caught on the morning bus to Tokyo. Falling asleep itself was more a matter of system overload and subsequent operating failure than my usual lack of sleep.

I knew I was making this trip too soon. Sure, I had a couple of appointments with the people who hadn’t flat out refused to meet me over the phone. But I had absolutely no idea what I was going to say to their faces once I introduced myself and handed over my homemade business card. ‘Japan is a tough nut to crack’ says any gaijin who has ever tried to make any sort of business deal here outside of renting a karaoke room by the hour. ‘Japan is its own bird,’ ‘They’re very polite while they would actually rather be sticking bamboo shoots under their fingernails than be talking to you,’ and on and on. I’d heard it all a hundred times. This was going to go nowhere – I should have packed my swimsuit instead of a shirt and tie and just gone to the beach. Yet here I was on a bus on Tuesday morning, heading for the biggest city in the world as if someone was going to listen to me. What was I thinking?

The logical answer, of course, is nothing. I wasn’t thinking. I was doing. And now I had my foot in someone’s door, had a chance to sell myself and convince men in charge of the largest bookstores in Tokyo to let me use their time and space for a self-serving book-signing event. This was an opportunity – to take another step closer to my dreams; to throw myself onto a stage and hope people show up; to make a ridiculous fool of myself trying to do all this in Japanese. In another two hours I’d be getting off the bus, and I wondered if I should just take the first bus back to Fukushima. I felt the same way my first time on a ski lift.

My wife had actually made the initial phone calls for me. She didn’t know what she was doing any more than I did, but she had the advantage of being clueless in her own language and I handed her the receiver. The people from Kinokuniya threw out every possible expression for ‘no’ except the actual word no. The person from the first Maruzen gave a defensive ‘We can’t do book-signings at our store,’ in other words ‘Oh God this wasn’t in the manual and I wasn’t told I would have to have an original thought on this job or in my life for that matter so please let me get back to answering questions I’ve been given the answers to.’ The person at the other Maruzen had yet to give a definitive ‘yes we can talk to you’ or ‘no and don’t call back until you’re a famous writer so we can guarantee ourselves a non-failure event.’ He was supposed to call back around 9am. At around 9:15 my phone started blinking. This would be a message from my wife with the good news. I flipped my phone open – and saw an email with an attachment. Great. Downloading pictures. This I didn’t need. My phone was fully charged when I left the house at 7:00; on any normal day – heck in any given four-day stretch considering my social life – I’d have no worries about my phone going dead on me. But I tend to find things to worry about when I am already stressing, and I didn’t need my phone running out of juice in the middle of an extended call with the president of a nationwide chain of bookstores who just couldn’t get enough of me. But good husband I am I fetched the file from the digital ether – and found myself looking back at my two sons, a love in their eyes they didn’t even understand, and I still can’t quite comprehend. Suddenly I was the guy lifting the car off his child pinned underneath. I was all-powerful, invincible. I was Daddy.

I was heading for the biggest city in the world. And someone was going to listen to me.

Ten minutes later my wife emails me again; the guy from Maruzen said no thanks. In a roundabout way.

Sitting on a wooden chair on the 7th floor of Junkudo Ikebukuro, sweating through my necktie as I sat waiting for my meeting with Kimura-san, it was safe to say I was a wreck. Even my watch, my only watch, the one that hadn’t seen the light of day in many many months, had stopped. Maybe yesterday. Maybe last Christmas. I couldn’t know. My electronic Japanese-English dictionary was working, though I had left it on my desk back in Fukushima and now for the life of me I couldn’t think of a decent translation of ‘to promote.’ My business Japanese ability, after nine years here, is as deep as my knowledge of book-signings. My shirt and tie felt like a ski jacket. I didn’t want to move, for anything. But I reached into my bag and slid my phone out and took another look at my older boy’s beaming face (my younger son just had this expression that said ‘Why are my pants wet again?’). And I remembered why I was really there.

An hour later I was laughing and chatting with a trio of Japanese men among the foreign novel stacks, the broad strokes of my first book-signing now splashed across the canvas of my future. ‘I just have to get the okay from the boss,’ said Takahashi-san as we were shaking hands in parting.

Note to self: Future not indelible.

And my euphoria takes a nose-dive, the worst of possibilities storming my head.

Well I didn’t know it at the time but Mr. Takahashi didn’t even work at that store. Not exactly. He worked in every store. In the country. As the guy in charge of the foreign book division for the entire nationwide chain of stores. He just happened to show up in the Ikebukuro store as I was struggling to give Kimura-san a reason not to say no to me just yet (though it was obvious that was all he wanted to do, for no other reason than to save himself from me and my stubborn refusal to walk away before he was forced to give me an actual answer). I’d say all three of us were thrilled that Takahashi-san was taking over the conversation, and before I knew it we were scouting out possible places to set up a table.

Alternate universe: The guy from the second Maruzen shoots me down during our initial phone call instead of the next morning when I am already headed to Tokyo. With that prospect gone I only have two appointments, which I decide to do back to back on Wednesday and thus don’t go to Tokyo until Tuesday evening. I meet with two Junkudo bookstore managers; Mr. Takahashi is not around to save either of them from me or me from either of them. I throw every idea I have at these poor managers, neither of them ever having done a book-signing before let alone for a gaijin. My Japanese is going downhill fast as I get more and more desperate underneath my ski jacket. They both do what any other Japanese person in their position would do: punt. I end up on a bus back to Fukushima with nothing to tell my wife who was probably still de-stressing from making those initial calls for me. My sons, thankfully, wouldn’t know any better.

In reality, there I was, three hours into my time in Tokyo and a book-signing already in the works. Add to this Takahashi-san offering to meet me the next day in the Shinjuku store to meet with the manager there and, perhaps, change my future to a degree I can not even perceive yet. This I could only take as a good omen. Even if he had to check with the boss first.

Before the midday heat had a chance to melt my tie and my spirits I ducked into the underground world of Sanchome Station. These below-ground networks of passageways (there are dozens of them all over Tokyo) are nothing short of amazing, a seemingly endless maze of shops and restaurants and remarkably clean floors and, in some zones, air-conditioning. My first order of business was to find a restroom and change out of my shirt and tie, just as I used to do as a teenager as soon as Christmas Mass was over.

I strolled comfortably, lazily among the hordes of working people, dressed more or less identically and hustling in every direction for God-knows-what reward. For a wandering while I breathed easy through the faint smile on my lips, relishing my triumph in Ikebukuro. But I couldn’t ignore the voice telling me I could rest on my budding laurels. I just have to run it by the boss…

For no reason I could figure, I’d always taken the train to get around Tokyo. I guess that was how I first learned to navigate the polite, sprawling monster. But today, trying to fend off the 36-degree heat, it occurred to me that the subway would be cooler. Plus there were those underground walkways; one more block in the shade was one less block in the sun as I figured it.

For a year I lived and worked in Osaka, and took the subway trains there quite regularly. And in Umeda, the biggest station on the north side of the loop around the city center, there is a labyrinthine underground ‘shotengai,’ which doesn’t exactly translate into ‘massive and dense vortex of restaurants and shops’ but might as well. Why I didn’t expect to encounter the same in Tokyo is a testament to my acute powers of perception.

In Tokyo, even moreso than in Osaka, the subway system constitutes an intricate web of criss-crossing train lines that manage to actually intersect at very few stations. To compensate, adjacent stations are connected by these underground sub-cities boasting signs that read, to give but one example, ‘Marunouchi Line 370 meters ahead,’ with an arrow to get you going in the right direction so you don’t spend the next half-hour walking the wrong way. And believe me, it is possible to walk the wrong way for a full thirty minutes in Tokyo’s underground.

So I’ve got a subterranean half-mile to go before I reach my station, and I’m strolling along at my own non-sweat-eliciting pace, I’m feeling triumphant and giddy and completely freaked out. I’d gotten what I wanted. Now I had to figure out how to not blow it. This, I was just now realizing, would be even tougher than landing the gig in the first place. Takahashi-san could have told me to come back and see him once I was a famous writer. But he decided, for whatever reason, to give me a chance. To use his store and his time and try to make it worthwhile for everyone. I was now allowed to show up. The obvious next question was, who else will? This idea sank further in, and suddenly I felt the urge to go play on the swings.

The subway brought me to Jimbocho, the so-called ‘Bookstore Heaven’ of Tokyo, faster than I would have liked. Aboveground I would find more bookstores than I could possibly visit in a day; disregard all those with little or no selection of foreign books and I’d be down to exactly one store: Sanseido, who I hadn’t called and would drop in on unexpectedly. In the underground of Jimbocho Station I found a restroom.

It took me longer to change clothes than it took for the people at Sanseido to tell me no.

And with that I decided to call it a day.

The sun fell; the air cooled; my legs and feet grew vaguely achy. And I couldn’t put off looking for a room for the night any longer. I knew a good number of people in town. Not counting facebook I only knew how to get in touch with three of them. With the sky growing dark one of them texted me back.

‘You’re in Tokyo? Cool, I’m in O-daiba, I’ll be free around 10:30, let’s have a beer! By the way, where are you staying?’ This I took as a prelude to an offer of a little floor space. My female friend, however, was apparently just making conversation. While not taking my obvious hints. So I stopped hinting. I’ll bring the beer! This, however, does not make a single Japanese woman feel better about inviting you over, no matter how long you’ve known each other.

Certainly there were inexpensive places to stay in Tokyo. But none of the Tokyo guide books in the Yaesu Book Center listed any (feeding my suspicion that guidebooks, even if they do not begin as such, evolve into a listing of favored (read:paying) establishments, and cheap hotels aren’t going to go that route.) Inside Tokyo Station, glancing over the train line map above the ticket machines, I decided on Omiya and hopped on the ever-jam-packed Keihin-Tohoku Line for a forty-minute ride north into Saitama Prefecture, which seems to exist as a sort of controlled run-off pool of humanity since there is no more room for anyone in Tokyo and they have to spill out somewhere.

Omiya is the biggest city in Saitama; for no other reason I was betting I’d find a decent variety of accommodation to choose from. After thirty minutes walking on progressively irate legs I’d found a business hotel for 90 bucks a night (the guy at the front desk was very polite as he told me there was nothing cheaper in town anywhere, liar) and a number of neon-lit, fancifully-colored and decorated joints charging by the hour until 10 or 11pm when I could then check in for an overnight stay. I walked on, not having brought my own sheets.

At this point my lady friend emails me to tell me where I can find a cheap and decent place to stay in Tokyo.

I thought the sign was a bad joke; I walked up and down the dark side street three times and still couldn’t find the place, supposedly 20 meters around the corner from the sign (which was, inexplicably, hanging right above - no space between the door frame and the sign - the door to a red velvet karaoke bar). I studied the red arrow and the ‘you are here’ and the sketchy map of corners and half-streets. And I found myself wishing ill on everyone who had anything to do with this sign and this hotel and this town and this entire country. I emailed my friend and thanked her for the information.

I knew of the capsule hotel concept. I knew they existed (unlike the vending machines offering certain used women’s clothing items that every gaijin swears they’ve seen – or swears they know someone who has sworn they’ve seen.) And I had always been curious (about the capsule hotel concept).

After the day I had, this was as good as any night to find out what it was like to sleep in a plastic coffin with a TV.

Twenty minutes after checking in I was pushing through the door into the communal bathroom where, for those not familiar with the Japanese idea of a hot spring bath, I would sit on a tiny bucket and wash and rinse off before sinking slowly into the big hot bath to let the day soak out of my system.

I stared at the dripping wet gaijin in the mirror in front of me. He had run himself through the gamut of emotion today, jumping into something he wasn’t ready for, doggie paddling like crazy just to stay mentally afloat, looking at a picture of his children and feeling superhuman, losing it in a foreign language, then conquering Tokyo (at least for the moment) before being brought back to his tired, sweaty existence as a dot in the concrete jungle.

Be careful what you ask for.

The guy in charge of the entire foreign book department for a nationwide chain of bookstores wants to see what I can do. This is scaring the rice balls right out of me. I want off the ski lift. My boys won’t know the difference, will they?

But I would. And so would my wife. She has more faith in me than I deserve. She knows even less about this book business than I do. She’s tried, but she can’t really read my book, not to any meaningful degree. But that doesn’t seem to matter. She made my phone calls for me, believing I needed her. Which I did.

She didn’t know what she was doing, but she did it anyway, believing I could turn this into some kind of success. Which, God, I hope I can.

Yes, it is an extraordinary day when the only moment of complete normality is sitting on a plastic bucket between two naked men.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

World Cup Blogging in Surreal Time

The evils of the Internet, not to mention the social media, have gotten their claws into me. Ten years ago I could watch any major sporting event on tape delay without having to worry in the meantime that Yahoo or MSN.com or half the facebook world would ruin it for me. Now here I am, awake and on  my undersized couch at 3:30am for the Germany-Spain match.

I didn't drink coffee ten years ago either.

I am actually pretty fired up that I decided to set my alarm. That tinny electronic version of Canon broke in half the worst dream I can remember having, ever. It involved a conversation - a conversation! - about global warming. Who has dreams like that?

Well the match is underway, so let's get to it.

I predict a win for Germany because they don't have anyone with long hair. This is my infallible barometer for predicting success on the football (soccer) pitch (field). Sound crazy? Look at Holland. Half their team doesn't even have hair. What other explanation can there be for a country of ten million people living in constant danger of being flooded into oblivion making it to the World Cup finals? It helped that they were up against Uruguay in the semi-final; Uruguay, a country of three million people and, apparently, no barbers.

This hair formula works for individuals too: all-time leading scorer in World Cup play? Ronaldo, with only that wedge of hair on his otherwise clean-shaven head. Germany's Klose and Mueller are right behind him. Klose's hair has gotten shorter with each successive goal he has scored, check the replays from 2006 if you don't believe me. Mueller's put the ball in the net three times in the last two matches, but then he didn't shave and thus yellow-carded himself right out of today's match (game) against Spain, who does have the neatly-trimmed David Villa on their side as well as the tamed golden mane of Fernando Torres, but if a couple of those guys don't visit the team stylist at halftime Spain is done for. It's as simple as that.

Maybe they've already made their appointments, because early on Spain seems to have the time-of-possession edge, despite being interrupted in Germany's territory by some nut job who decided to run onto the field less than four minutes into the match. I'll never understand some people. He should have at least made some kind of deal and run out in front of three billion people waving a Budweiser banner for some cash.

We're already thirty minutes in and while both teams have had their chances there have been no serious scoring threats. Okay, Puyol from Spain was given a great opportunity on a perfect cross from the right side but he had long hair and his header went flying way over the crossbar.

Since the match started I've been feeling a bit off. Normally a 3:15am alarm will do this to me - if a 3:15am alarm were normal. But I just realized what it is. I'm not hearing those kazoos. The TV is turned way down, sure, but I can hear the Japanese announcers just fine. Two weeks of World Cup play and my brain has tuned out the noise. It took me almost a full month before I was sleeping through my baby's nighttime screaming sessions. Lucky for me my wife doesn't care about the World Cup and hasn't had the selective hearing training that I've had.

I love watching sports on Japanese TV; all the relative terms the commentators use are actually the English words, spoken in the Japanese syllabary. 'Deh-viddo Bee-ra ga ref-to sigh-do ni, ku-rossu boh-ru, headin-gu shoo-TOH!' (Please email me directly for the official translation, as well as the incidental distinction of being the first person in history to officially comment on my blog.)

It's already halftime. What happened? No yellow cards? These guys better try harder in the second half.

It's 4:15am now, and despite the thick rainy-season cloud cover it's getting light out. This doesn't bode well for me in terms of getting any sleep once this match is over. My son still isn't old enough to understand that wake-up time is based on how late daddy was up the night before, not on some silly solar event.

Okay, second half is starting, I've got another cup of coffee by my side and...wait a minute! Fernando Torres is still on the bench! What is Spain's coach thinking? Fernando just recently got his hair cut! There are plenty of crossbar-clearing hippies still running around out there. I think we are beginnning to see why Spain has not been living up to its Number One ranking lately.

For those of you who still doubt my reasoning, ask yourself: Did Pele ever need a hairband?

One of Germany's players is named Schweinsteiger. Now, I was a mere German language and literature minor in college, meaning I could get by if I was able to discuss in German the relative pros and cons of German beer. (This of course made easier by the fact there are no cons.) But if I recall correctly, Schwein means pig while Steiger means someone who climbs or mounts. Check the math yourself, but personally I would not be out there in front of half the TV-owning world with the name 'Pig-mounter' on my back.

While we are on the subject of names, what is up with David Villa having his full name across the back of his jersey? Anyone who actually cares who is who out there will probably be astute enough to understand that big Number 7 under the Villa means it's David. On the other hand, there's also a guy named 'Xrvi' on the Spanish side. He should have his full name on his shirt just for the fan interest factor.

Twenty minutes into the second half, Spain is getting some solid chances but Neuer the German goalie keeps turning them away. I can deal with 0-0 matches if guys are getting dirty out there.

SCORE!! Spain goes ahead with a borderline insurmountable 1-0 lead on a header off a corner kick. Strange thing is, Puyol put it in. This is the same muppet who headed it over the crossbar in the first half. He must have gotten a trim during the break.

I'm rooting for Germany by the way. It often happens that I don't know who I want to win until the match has started and I find myself pulling for one side or the other. Today was no exception to that, and I just now realized why. The German and Dutch languages are similar enough that opposing players can hold a decent argument with each of them speaking their own language. With two completely different languages at work - say, English and Japanese - it is much more difficult for two people (soccer players, husband and wife, etc.) to get a good jawing going. If Uruguay had beaten Holland I would be rooting for Spain now. And yes, I would be able to hear the players yelling at each other now that I've tuned out the chorus of kazoos.

Ah, the Spanish coach is coming to his senses - he's putting Fernando Torres and his neatly-trimmed coif into the game. But hold on...he's taking out David Villa? He's got shorter hair than the new and improved Fernando! And that tiny trianglular goatee Villa is sporting can't be the problem, that thing is barely long enough to merit a dab of mousse, even in Spain (but would get one in Italy).

Germany's got three minutes left to put the ball in the net. Spain took out both Portugal and Paraguay with 1-0 efforts; I didn't think that would be enough against the impeccably-clipped German scoring machine.

Now Spain is making a substitution with less than a minute of extra time remaining. This is what used to happen in town league basketball games. What, did someone's mother complain that her son wasn't getting any playing time? And there's the final whistle, and he's still on the sideline, jumping up and down as if to ward off the barrage of pulled muscles his 8 seconds of playing time would bring.

Great, so now I'm looking at a World Cup final consisting of inarticulate arguments and a probable 1-0 score as Spain doesn't seem to know how to do anything else. Unless of course their coach takes my call and sends Puyol to the Cape Town Barber Shop before the weekend. Or Holland continues to put their receding hairlines to work. Who hasn't noticed how many of their goals have come off of headers? (Except for their first goal against Brazil, which was a gift as a long-haired defender got in the goalie's way allowing Sneijder's pass - that was in no way a shot - to end up in the net.)

So it's coming up on 5:30am, it's light out, the clouds are even clearing and the family is still all asleep. I suppose I could try to get a little more shut-eye but recently my son has gotten into this early-to-bed-early-to-rise cycle and has been waking me up at 6:00 by sticking his face into mine and saying 'Daddy let's eat breakfast!' Not even a gentle shake or a nice easy good morning or even a kazoo which would be fine since I can't hear those anymore. Just a blunt, grinning 'Welcome back to the new world order, dad. I want cereal.' And another day will be lost in the vortex that is parenthood.

So maybe it's good that I have to wake up in the middle of the night to watch these games. This is my time. The next Olympics are in London, which means a lot of the best stuff will be on in the wee hours here in Japan. If I'm really lucky I won't be working at all by then. Of course my second son will be pulling the same wake-up call routine that his older brother is throwing me now.

But that's cool; at the end of the day I love being a dad.

I'm going to need more coffee though.